Captain Phillips (2013)

Directed by Paul Greengrass
Written by Billy Ray

A modern genius of the action movie, Paul Greengrass has a handful of classics under his belt already with Bourne Ultimatum and United 93 among them. In his latest effort, he tries his hand once again at another real life story that captured the attention of Americans for some time. The story of Captain Rich Phillips should be at the very least casually familiar to the typical American. I, for instance, did not go into the film knowing a whole lot of details, but I at least recalled the event, the Somali pirates. To the same token, Tom Hanks is a legendary actor already in his career, but has been a fair bit less active on the silver screen in recent years. It is great to see him back, and in full form no less, teaming up with a great director like Greengrass.

For those who don’t specifically recall the tale of Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks), he was the captain of the Maersk Alabama freighter. The cargo boat was on course around the horn of Africa when it was taken over by a band of Somali pirates who had planned to keep the boat for ransom, to make millions. In our film, the band is led by the skinny, but ambitious Muse (Barkhad Abdi). His motivations are quelled from more than simply the poverty and grave situation his village finds itself in, under the rule of a war lord. His is a mission to prove himself as worthy, and with it comes a mentality of boom or bust. There is no quit in Muse, for quit would mean shame, and more likely, death. Phillips on the other hand is fighting for his own life, and the lives of his crew in this dire situation on the high seas.

As should be expected from Greengrass at this point in his career, Captain Phillips is a highly tense thriller from the start. An overly simple setup gives us just enough to understand the cultural differences of each party, the Somalis and the Americans. Instead of large amounts of backstory, we instead get thrown off the deep end right into the real world threat of piracy. Greengrass manages a way about his frantic camera to capture the action with the right amount of intensity and even poise despite the grit. The film looks great, that is for sure. Where it does start to fall a little is when Phillips and the pirates board the lifeboat. I couldn’t help but feel like the air let out of the film a little bit. Instead of the great tense space of the boat, we are cramped into the confined space of the lifeboat with conversation to carry the film.

This can’t be helped really, and the two films in one effect is not necessarily the end of the world, even if it is painfully noticeable. But the thematic depth attempted in the lifeboat was no match for the high tension from before. There is nothing necessarily wrong, or off about the themes explored, the rich and poor, Somali and American differences, worlds apart. It just doesn’t measure up with the rest of the film, which was too alarming a reaction to ever settle into the characters enough to cope with their situations. What buoys this sequence are the performances from Hanks and Abdi.

Greengrass, in true form, decides to use amateur actors for the parts of the Somali pirates, and it proves to be a brilliant choice. Abdi is the star of the film in my opinion. Hanks delivers one of the better turns of his storied career, but Abdi is the discovery here. His raw talent shines through in the form of the brittle yet tough Muse. There really is more here to like than not. Greengrass can’t fail with this material, he won’t fail. There have been murmuring of the inaccuracies of the film compared to what actually happened. This may be, but Greengrass uses a real world event to explore his own themes. It is a jumping off point for an artist to express his own ideas, and not to depict the facts. Go in for tense entertainment and that is what you will get with Captain Phillips.

*** – Good


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